Disasters Made in Japan: Fukushima Nuclear and Diamond Princess

Disasters Made in Japan: Fukushima Nuclear and Diamond Princess

As of February 23, 2020, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the Diamond Princess cruise ship berthed in Japan has soared from 10 to 691 since February 4. The fiasco made Japan the most significant infection cluster outside China, and turned Japan into an international farce nicknamed "Maritime Wuhan" or "Little Wuhan." As the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the preposterous quarantine measure enacted on the Diamond Princess has once again exposed the inadaptability of Japanese bureaucracy and its disasters-incubating nature.

I. Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Report:

Japanese bureaucracy brews disasters In the report by the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations (ICANPS) released in 2012, Chairman Kurokawa Kiyoshi stressed that "with abiding regret, we have to admit that Fukushima disaster is a “Disaster Made in Japan”. Such a man-made mistake is the result of deep-rooted morbidity in Japanese culture and institutions. Unfortunately, the country that is leading the world with its outstanding machinery and technology also bears a penchant for incubating disasters:

A. The iron triangle composed of political elites, bureaucrats, and enterprises: a gigantic co-existent interests conglomerate When Japan's economic development was in full swing during the 1950s and 1980s, the collusive relations among political elites, bureaucrats, and enterprises were also coming to shape, eventually became "Regulatory Capture." What happened out of it was fifty years of one-party dominance, seniority-based bureaucratic ranking system, and life-long employment that benefits both bureaucrats and businesses.

The mindset that rationalizes the hidden rules justified the policy. As the economy grows, the "confidence" of political elites gradually became "arrogance." Before the nuclear disaster, the government, the competent agency, and the power companies ignored the international atomic safety guidelines and neglected the importance of disaster prevention and contingency plans. The Ministry in charge willfully concealed important information leading up to the outbreak of the nuclear disaster. They downplayed the situation, raised public concerns about the collusion between government and business sectors.

B. The arrogance of Elitism: organizational interests above national interests Japanese political elites vie for the pork-barrel and factional balance of interest, blindly put the governance of the state at the helm of bureaucrats with handsome diplomas. Those bureaucrats get promoted fast-tracked, forming exclusive cliques with homogeneous background, mindset, and interests. Therefore, "following the precedent, resisting reform, sugarcoating reality, and protecting organizational interests" became their collective mentality that overrides the protection of public safety. It was this type of attitude that led to the Fukushima disaster.

During the nuclear disaster, the power and responsibility were confused among the Atomic Energy Commission, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, and Tokyo Electric Power Company. They concealed the truth, blamed the nuclear catastrophe on tsunami, and did not bother to face the significance of crisis management capabilities. When the Prime Minister Naoto Kan stepped down, he reprimanded the bureaucratic system for knowingly hiding information, further proved that the collusive relations between Japanese government officials and business leaders never went away with the change of regime.

C. The collective mindset of blind compliance and indifference to public affairs Reflective obedience, reluctance to challenge authority, sticking to the rules and collectivism are deep-rooted in Japanese tradition and culture. The abiding mentality of blind compliance has led to an indifference to public issues and results in catastrophic consequences.

D. Government power unchecked The responsibility for auditing nuclear energy safety regulations fell under the same bureaucracy that advocates for nuclear power. Kurokawa pointed out in earnest that Japanese citizens should self-reflect on their responsibility as members of a democratic society. Otherwise, the same disasters will reoccur despite change of regimes.

II. Diamond Princess Disasters Made in Japan

Fukushima disaster in 2011 cost Democratic Party the faith of the people and gave way to the return of Liberal Democratic Party and Abe. However, the recent Diamond Princess incident fulfilled the prediction of Professor Kurokawa that Japan will face the same disaster even after the change of regime if no sweeping political reform ever took place. Diamond Princess cruise ship, carrying 3711 guests and crew members (1285 Japanese), returned to Yokohama Port on February 4 because of a confirmed COVID-19 infected passenger from Hong Kong.

The Japan-made disaster hence began. As of February 23, the number of confirmed cases on Diamond Princess has spiked to 691, making Japan the most significant infection cluster outside mainland China. The Japanese government's chaotic, unprofessional, and inhumane management of the crisis has earned itself worldwide criticism. The ultimate cause is no other than Japan's disaster-incubating nature that was pointed out by Professor Kurokawa

A. The gigantic co-existent interests conglomerate composed of political elites, bureaucrats, and large enterprises. (Again) Ministry of Health of Japan in charge of the epidemic has an overarching jurisdiction over social welfare, social insurance, pension policy, medicine and health, labor policy, children, long-term care, and even pension for war-bereaved families. When interests of such a broad spectrum and large scale are involved, public health and epidemics prevention can hardly be the major concern.

The only ranking officer with medical expertise in the Ministry, Yasuhiro Suzuki, had the opportunity to be summoned by Abe only because of this outbreak. Ironically, the position of "medical technical supervisor" was not established until July 2017 and Suzuki was the first on job. It shows how insignificant the issue of disease control was in the eyes of the Ministry.

B. Leadership at the helm of political authority(Again) None of the seven highest-ranking officers in the Ministry of Health and Welfare has public health backgrounds. e.g., Minister Kato Katsunobu (Abe's close friend), Minister Hashimoto Gaku (second-generation politician, son of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto), and Deputy Minister Inatsu Hisashi, all politically appointed. In other words, the decisions on epidemic prevention were at the mercy of political authority without any public health expertise. Furthermore, Japan has no designated agencies in charge of epidemic prevention, and no related crisis management mechanism ever exists.

Any emergency has to follow regular administrative procedures: the policy paper has to be submitted for approval by several layers after consultations among desk officers, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, and respective experts. Time wasted in the process and virus spread. The decision-making pattern is pertinent to Diamond Princess, including whether to allow passengers to go ashore, the requirement for landing permissions, quarantine capabilities and method, onboard logistic support, passenger placement, …etc. None of the above decisions was allowed to skip the red tape in Japanese bureaucracy. That is why Japan is constantly behind on every move of the way even when faced with such imminent threat of an epidemic outbreak.

C. The arrogance of Elitism (Again) February 4: Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide stated that the decision about Dimond Princess is at the discretion of "the competent quarantine authority" and the advice of 10-day virus latency estimated by World Health Organization should be considered. Minister of Health Kato announced on the same day that Japan would enact 14-day quarantine, a decision completely disregards the potential hazard for the healthy passengers when placed with potentially infected ones in the same carrier.

February 11: The media from local and abroad lashed out at the Japanese government's mishandling on the Dimond Princess quarantine, exposed the worsening living conditions and dire medical needs of passengers with chronic diseases onboard. The Ministry was forced to relax the quarantine measure towards senior passengers. It took the Ministry two days to conclude and started to release certain disadvantaged groups with negative test results.

February 19, Professor Kentaro Iwata of infectious science at Kobe University rebuked the mediocre quarantine measures after he boarded the Diamond Princess for firsthand inspection. He found the isolation measures inadequate, the zoning not in place, and passengers free-roaming. The whole ship was chaotic. In response, the Deputy Minister Hashimoto refuted through tweeter that Iwata's invading of the vessel was unauthorized, and posted a photo to indicate that the corridor onboard was divided. However, it was later found out that the two "separate" doors actually pointed to the same space and were not isolated at all. When questioned by media about the zoning measure onboard, the Minister could not even give a categorical answer.

February 22, research of the National Institutes of Health in Taiwan indicated that the actual number of infected cases on Diamond Princess was very close to the calculated number in the scenario without quarantine measures. It means the quarantine in Japan was utterly futile, which verified the observation of Iwata.

February 17 to 21, the U.S., Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong retrieved their nationals from the ship by planes to continue another 14 days’ quarantine in their own countries. While unbelievably, the Japanese government allowed the released Japanese passengers to take public transportations home immediately after disembarking. One of those Japanese passenger was confirmed infected on the 22nd and became the first confirmed case among them. Four Australian and eighteen U.S. retrieved passengers were confirmed infected afterward, a slap on the face of Japan's quarantine. Minister Kato admitted on the same day that twenty-three released passengers had not been tested during the quarantine, and nineteen of them are Japanese. Kato admitted negligence in operation and promised to quarantine them near Tokyo.

D. Organizational interests above national interests (Again)

WHO listed the confirmed cases according to the place of origin. The ones on Diamond Princess were initially assigned to Japan. But the Japanese Minister Kato protested that since the passengers on board have not landed, the cases onboard should not be attributed to Japan. Meanwhile, the Japanese government and several Japanese media even suggested that Japan has no obligation to deal with the Diamond Princess due to its British nationality. Such parochial remarks from the Japanese government are complete disregard of humanity, international practice, and its long-claimed contribution to the world.

By international practice, the coastal states must provide humanitarian aid when a maritime vessel encounters unforeseeable distress. Not to mention that there were 1,285 Japanese tourists on the ship. Since the Japanese government was willing to dispatch a charter plane to Wuhan China to retrieve Japanese nationals after the outbreak, why didn't Japan intercede with the British government on behave of the Japanese passengers for their early release?

Every Japanese cabinet has reiterated Japan's international contribution. Abe was a particularly avid advocator for the international obligations and contributions of Japan's Self-Defense Force. Japan never even stops sending frigates to the Middle East for peacekeeping missions. When Japan can make substantial international contributions by properly handle the crisis on the Diamond Princess, on the contrary, it suddenly so eager to draw a line and shove off responsibilities.

III. The Abe regime after the disaster

Abe has overcome some predicaments since returning to power on December 26, 2012: consumption tax, reclaiming the right of collective self-defense through constitutional interpretation, the Kake Scandal, the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, and cherry blossom party controversy, etc. He managed to maintain his approval rate at almost 50% and to be the longest-serving prime minister in Japan's constitutional history. The Sino-Japan relations seemed to be revived and thrived.

After U.S. President Trump took office in 2017 and decided to withdraw from TPP, Abe calibrated his foreign policy and embraced China's Belt and Road Initiative. When Trump weighed trade war in 2018 and hit both Japan and China, Sino-Japan relations were further strengthened. When Abe made his state visit to Beijing on October 26, 2018, he was heartily welcomed. Abe reaffirmed Sino-Japanese ties based on four political documents, committed to handle Taiwan issue properly, turn competition into coordination, build a multi-level and multi-channel dialogue mechanism, cooperation on the Belt and Road initiative with third markets, and jointly maintain multilateral free trade system. Sino-Japan relations were ushered into a new era in 2019.

Aside from a total of four summit meetings have been held (twice with Xi and twice with Li Keqiang), five foreign ministers' meetings, six high-level exchanges, and more than ten institutional dialogues that also took place. The two sides have prepared the fifth political document that will serve as the foundation for their future strategic partnership, to be signed when Xi Jinping’s planning visit to Japan in the spring this year.

Now it appears that the Diamond Princess fiasco has become the most formidable impediment since Abe's second administration. His approval rate plummeted to 41% and kept spiraling downward; the carefully crafted new Sino-Japanese relationship is now in jeopardy. So is Abe's Tokyo Olympics' dream of revising Japan's economic development, and his ambition in finding a perfect successor that can safeguard his political influence. The Japan-made Diamond Princess fiasco has made the slogan of the Tokyo Olympics about "safety and peace of mind" sounds particularly ironic.

In contrast, Taiwan's remarkable handlings for the epidemic prevention have earned praises. Many Taiwanese realized that Japan is not perfect after all and that Taiwan may not enjoy the same efficiency as Japanese bureaucracy, but Taiwanese' willingness to learn, and their adaptability is worth envying. Taiwan has been too used to mimic Japan on her public policies (such as the futile "regional revitalization policy" and "Society 5.0 initiative"). But Taiwan should bear in mind that a reference could be conducive only when the whole picture behind the story is put into perspective, including the innate glitch of the Japanese system. --Yujen Kuo, Professor, China and Asia Pacific Regional Institute, Sun Yat-Sen University and Executive Director of this Institute

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